A bemused onlooker may be forgiven if, looking on the culture wars raging in the States currently, she judged all atheists to be obnoxious zealots in pitched battle with their adversaries, the ignorant forces of religious intolerance. In the cold war over hearts and minds, the stakes are high, and surely the fight to keep the calendar from being rolled back a century in ethics and science is worth fighting. But atheism is just an absence of faith. It can no more be “against” religion than a vacuum can be “against” pressure. It needs something to inform and fill it, but if all that thing is an opposition to faith and religion, it has chained itself to the very thing it claims to transcend.
The adapted position of most atheists as paragons of rationality against reactionary bigotry misses both that some of humanity’s greatest scientists were fervently religious, and that some of history’s bloodiest episodes were instigated by avowed atheists. The question of whether it is somehow “better” to have faith or not is moot; there will always be the believers as there will always be the faithless. And each in turn, being human, are capable of both the greatest and basest deeds. Moreover,each side is necessary, as each offers something to society at large that the other can’t.
If all this is true, what can we tell our rhetorical onlooker that atheism actually is? It is the great blank slate we are each handed, which we have the freedom to accept or reject. It is being able to write one’s own script, though some of us know we make lousy playwrights. It is the freedom to find beauty and meaning wherever we choose. And in the end, it is seeing the struggle between faith and the lack thereof as part of the eternal human condition, and seeing the beauty in that struggle. In the photograph below, I see the beauty and drama that the confining walls of the church impart to the wildly growing foliage. But to you, it could mean something entirely different. It is, after all, a tabula rasa.