I’ve been linked to this perfect link-dump written up by Xenologer which gives the full amount of background information: “Women in Secularism 2: Breaking News: Even at WiS, we have to defend the purpose of WiS!” Go there for any background information you may be missing…
“Your atheist friends are right that there is an important logical difference between believing that there is no God and not believing that there is a God. Compare my saying , “I believe that there is no gold on Mars” with my saying “I do not believe that there is gold on Mars.” If I have no opinion on the matter, then I do not believe that there is gold on Mars, and I do not believe that there is no gold on Mars. There’s a difference between saying, “I do not believe (p)” and “I believe (not-p).” Logically where you place the negation makes a world of difference.
But where your atheist friends err is in claiming that atheism involves only not believing that there is a God rather than believing that there is no God.
But when you look more closely at how protagonists of the presumption of atheism used the term “atheist,” you discover that they were defining the word in a non-standard way, synonymous with “non-theist.” So understood the term would encompass agnostics and traditional atheists, along with those who think the question meaningless (verificationists).
Such a re-definition of the word “atheist” trivializes the claim of the presumption of atheism, for on this definition, atheism ceases to be a view. It is merely a psychological state which is shared by people who hold various views or no view at all. On this re-definition, even babies, who hold no opinion at all on the matter, count as atheists! In fact, our cat Muff counts as an atheist on this definition, since she has (to my knowledge) no belief in God.
One would still require justification in order to know either that God exists or that He does not exist, which is the question we’re really interested in.”
~William Lane Craig “Definition of Atheism”
What you’ve just read is an example of what I like to call “theistsplaining”. This is when theists decide that they know better than we atheists what we are, how we behave, and what we are supposed to be and do. And, as all of you, I’m sure, can agree, this is incredibly annoying.
Theists are uniquely privileged in this world where atheists are not. We atheists are very unpopular in most places of the world, though in some (Bangladesh) more than others (the United States). In the US, although it’s true that now a majority of USians would vote for an atheist as President (54%), it’s still the smallest majority. Atheists are still considered about as trustworthy as rapists in the US, as well. When you take into account the wider world, it becomes really bad. Atheists are not just disliked in many countries, but also outright hated.
We all know the hatred being directed towards atheists in Bangladesh, where fanatic Muslims are calling for atheism to be punishable by death. We get similar treatment by Christians in Uganda, as well.
When theists insist that they know better than us who we are, they are denying all of this. They are exercising their privilege over us, insisting, quite arrogantly, that they have a better understanding of our atheism than we do.
This is when, I think, it is right for us atheists to tell theists to “shut up and listen”.
Atheism is not the doctrine or belief that God does not exist. It does not have dogmas, or clergy, or holy books, or churches, or prophecy, or any of that. Atheism is not a positive claim.
Atheism is a negative claim. At its simplest, atheism is the lack of belief in a higher power or powers. How atheists choose to identify with that definition is up to us and us alone. We have a unique knowledge of our own beliefs, ideas, thoughts, and feelings. I would say that we atheists are uniquely privileged to understand what atheism is. If someone wants to know what atheism is, they should only ever ask an atheist. If someone wants to know what atheists go through on a daily basis, or what it’s like to be an atheist in this world, they should only ever ask an atheist.
Only we atheists know the kind of lives we live, because the only person who is you is… well… you.
So it’s okay to tell theists to “shut up and listen”. For one thing, “shut up” is not permanent. We’re not telling theists to shut up forever. We’re telling them that, right now, they do not have the knowledge or understanding to talk about atheism. When we ask them to shut up, we’re saying to stop talking at that moment. We’re saying that what they are saying is wrong, and they need to listen to us and what we have to say, because we are atheists, and they are not. They do not have the necessary experience to tell us who and what we are.
Privilege is a pervasive thing, whether it’s a theist theistsplaining about atheism to atheists, or a man mansplaining about tone to a room of feminists at a feminism conference. When you are privileged, you do not have the right to tell someone who is underprivileged who and what they are, or how they should act and speak to others.
If you are privileged, then please… shut up and listen. You can’t listen if you don’t shut up, and you will never learn if you don’t listen. Asking you to shut up is not silencing you. It’s telling you that you are making a huge mistake and it’s time to stop and learn.
Only atheists are experts on our experiences, and only women are experts on women’s experiences.
Don’t ever forget that.