The Gray Lady blew it when it decided to review Jared Kushner’s new memoir, no matter how scathing the review. Your correspondent also blew it by posting about the review.
By Brad Berens
When people learn that I’m an atheist often the first thing they say is, “oh, so you don’t believe in God?”
“No,” I push back gently. “That’s not what atheism means.”
Defining atheism as “you don’t believe in God” keeps God at the center of the conversation. It reinscribes God’s importance, defying God’s authority but accepting it as the thing to defy. This is the territory of literary characters like Milton’s Satan and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus who try to rebel against God and fail.
In contrast, what atheism really means is “I am skeptical about the value of belief in a supreme being.” It asks, what does the notion of a supreme being get people in the first place? Are the benefits worth the cost either to the individual or to society? Atheism puts aside the questions around the actual existence of a supreme being because there’s no scientific evidence either way. “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” as the saying goes, but neither is it evidence of presence.
Stepping away from the unanswerable (scientifically speaking) question of a supreme being’s existence allows us to ask different questions.
The difference between the conventional definition of atheism and the one I’m describing here is like the difference between immoral and amoral. An immoral person does things that he or she believes to be wrong (and feels guilty about it). An amoral person doesn’t let moral questions get in the way of doing things (and feels no guilt).
Don’t get me wrong: there is no connection between amorality and atheism besides the Latin prefix “a.” I’m a deeply moral person—I believe in right and wrong in the world and strive to do right things. I am also an atheist.
Ideally, we’d have separate words for the two things I’m talking about: anti-deity (for the people who reject God’s authority but accept God’s existence) and atheism (for the people like me who question the benefit for individuals and society of a belief in a supreme being).
By now, you’re probably wondering what any of this has to do with The New York Times, which is fair. (more)