Yes, I anticipate several intense and long conversations in the next week or so (probably longer). While I feel certain that these debates (discussions? conversations?) will maintain an amicable and friendly tone (because I know my Dad and I can tell his passionate/excited voice from his mad/personal voice) I still would like to be prepared for some of the questions we will be discussing. While I have done and intend to continue to do research on the subject of atheism v. theism, I find it helpful to write down (or type out) my thoughts before hand to sort things out into neater categories in my head. So here goes (this may turn into multiple posts, FYI).
First, the question of whether atheism is just another religion. Man, I could probably do a whole blog just on this subject. Well, to begin with, it is very hard--nearly impossible--to sum up the beliefs of a demographic of people who believe widely differently from each other. And I certainly do not claim my opinions to be indicative of the entire group. With that digression aside, we plunge ahead.
Also, sorry if I sound like I'm from another century. I grew up on Dickens, Austen, Bronte, Doyle, etc, and I just can't help myself sometimes.
Ahem. Atheism is really only a belief when viewed through the lenses of those who are not atheists. It's kind of insulting to tell atheists that they just have a different set of beliefs or follow a different cult or religion because to atheists, that simply isn't true. Atheism is about not believing for most atheists. This is really hard for people who believe in any sort of religion to understand, because to them if god is real than not believing in god is an active belief choice. To atheists, this is like saying not believing in santa, the tooth fairy, or the smurfs is an active choice and belief. To atheists, this is simply facing the facts of life; nothing more and nothing less. To an atheist not believing in god is like believing in germs, atoms, canine biology, and the fact that the rent is due next week.
Now, part of the problem with this is that atheists are labeled by what they don't believe. This does present an awkward problem, as it gives the idea that atheists are all about what they don't believe (which, as any of the many christian denominations can tell you, quickly becomes a religious-type belief). And the argument can be made that some atheists--and certainly some of the most visible and vocal of them--do tend to define themselves by their disbelief and make it their mission to "de-convert" as many people as possible. Of course, even this, from an atheist perspective, is not a religious thing, but a saving-the-world-from-the-horrors-of-religion thing. But, to be fair, it can look very much like evangelical atheism. But to get back to the main point, why are atheists labeled by what they don't believe, and is this non-belief a central non-belief for most atheists?
According to Wikipedia's page on atheism (I know, I know, wiki-haters are bashing their keyboards right now) the word originated as a pejorative term (read, insult) to those who did not worship the gods every one else did. In fact (still according to Wikipedia) no one really referred to themselves as atheists until the 18th century (1700s, for those who get confused). And, it isn't hard to believe that back in history when everyone believed in and worshipped some kind of god, that atheism would be used as an insult (think godless, godlessness, paganism, heathenism; all insults at one time or another). And, if one continues to read the etymology section on atheism at Wikipedia, one will discover that some atheists feel that the word atheism isn't even necessary. So, arguably, the only reason we need the word or use it (for now) is because people who do not believe in the existence of god or gods are so rare and many or most religious followers feel a need to classify them somehow into an other.
The idea that atheism doesn't need a name makes perfect sense from an atheistic perspective. After all, to an atheist, we are born with no notion of god, and it is only as we are raised in a religious environment that we begin to have some concept of a divine being existing. Arguably, though, from an atheistic perspective, this adoption of religion is a disturbance of the natural state of non-belief. It's a bit like not believing in the existence of the evil overlord Fwim and his minions of urglems that rule the moon and are planning on taking over our planet in the year 2309 (and I apologize if I've accidentally referenced some scientology or new-age belief; I was trying to make something up). One simply isn't born believing or disbelieving in something that does not exist, so it makes more sense to make a name for those who believe in imaginary things than for those who don't believe in imaginary things.
Now, naturally in a world mostly populated by people who are religious or spiritual to some degree, it is impossible that this lack of faith or belief could go unnamed. Impossible. And this can put atheists in an awkward spot. To call one's self an atheist is to bow down to the ruling ideology that not-believing is "weird" "different" and often inferior in morals, attitudes, behaviors, and of course numbers. It is admitting to being a minority in a world and a country where minorities do not receive the warmest of welcomes. But, on the other hand, in a world and especially a country that values individuality, the self, beliefs, and values (yes, even the religious tend to value these things to one degree or another) it feels false not to stand up and identify as not being mainstream.
In other words, the point of identifying as atheist isn't to say that the most important thing in the world is that god continues not to exist. The point is to refuse pressure to conform, to fit in, or even just to stay silent. The point is to speak one's opinion on a subject where individual non-conformist opinions are not very welcome. The point is to say, "that may be the most important thing in the world to you, but that doesn't mean I have to agree." The point is freedom to live however one wants to live as whomever one wants to live as. And, for many, the point is to live as one's self in an authentic way that can hopefully lead to finally finding community that understands (rather than having to live one's entire life in a community where all one has to offer is dumb silence and dull nods).
So, while I'm sure many--if not most--atheists would be up for a re-branding (or un-branding) for now I think that the term is heavily affixed in our culture and the best thing we can do is remember that no matter what a person believes, that person is still first and foremost a fellow human being. Have a marvelous day, fellow persons!
P.S. Thank you to http://en.wikipedia.org for being an excellent source of quick knowledge any time I need you. BFFs! ;)