The Good Atheist

Probably the strangest thing about attending a seminary for my (first?) graduate degree is the expectation that I’m “not really an atheist” (in the sense of Oprah Winfrey saying that if you can feel awe, you aren’t really an atheist; everyone knows that atheists are grouchy and only eat Brussels sprouts). If you can discuss religion, if you can do theology, if you can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, then you aren’t really an atheist…or at the very least, you’re a GOOD atheist!

If the expectations of my classmates are anything to go by, a good atheist is an atheist who respects other belief systems and who is constantly sad that her personal systems of meaning-making can’t guarantee everlasting life. She’d be an atheist who feels included in moments of silence that nevertheless end with “amen” and who never makes religious people feel awkward.

So, Christian people are disappointed to find out that I’m not a one-of-the-good-ones atheist. Oh well.

The ironic thing is that, according to some atheists, I’m not a good atheist either — as in, I’m not good at being an atheist. Not because I’m attending a seminary or because I can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, but because I’d rather do feminism than do atheism, because I’d rather join hands with a liberationist than a rape apologist, because I do religious people the courtesy of taking their life experiences seriously (which is markedly not the same thing as taking their beliefs seriously; I just can’t stand anyone who is in the business of auditing other people’s lives).

Clearly I’m not a “good atheist” by either definition presented thus far, so I’ll just have to create my own.

To my mind, a good atheist is a person who behaves ethically and who does not express god-belief/belief in the supernatural. Because a good atheist is not saddled with 6,000 years of patriarchal theology, a good atheist is able to seek out, identify, and reject the patriarchal artifacts in our culture. A good atheist in my social location is aware that the current Euro-American conception of “God” is particular to this time and this place and knows that to assume all believers worship “God” is ethnocentric in the extreme. A good atheist knows that people deserve respect, even when their beliefs don’t. A good atheist is not afraid to point out when beliefs don’t deserve respect. A good atheist knows the difference between ignorance and choosing to be ignorant.

Those are the most general guidelines I can come up with. Here are some other guidelines which are more particular to me and my own experiences. Please note that your mileage may vary and that you are never under any obligation to do something which makes you feel unsafe.

  • A good atheist is OUT. A good atheist is constantly in the process of coming out.
  • A good atheist recognizes when she is the recipient of Christian privilege and rejects it. A good atheist recognizes when other people are dealing in Christian privilege and calls it out.
  • A good atheist has carefully considered how to identify herself. Is she a skeptic? Maybe. Is she a freethinker? Maybe. Is she an agnostic? Maybe. But she has considered all of the connotations and decided that to identify herself as an atheist is the most intellectually honest approach available.
  • A good atheist is not holier-than-thou, or rather, more-atheist-than-thou. As interesting as de-conversion stories can be, the quality of the story does not determine the quality of atheist. The idea of “atheist street cred” is basically meaningless.
  • A good atheist, if speaking publicly about atheism, is well-versed in counter-apologetics — which is to say, you shouldn’t ever concede a philosophical point. It isn’t turtles all the way down and you know it.