Here is my list of all the various terms used by nonbelievers to describe themselves. Among these, “atheist” vs “agnostic” are frequently debated. To many, the nuances of “atheist” appear overly certain and the nuances of “agnostic” appear too wishy-washy. To address this dilemma, Mano Singham steps up to the plate. Singham is an atheist blogger & author (here) and a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University. Here is the definition he offers in the new issue of The New Humanist:
Atheist: One for whom god is an unnecessary explanatory concept.
I like this definition — it allows many otherwise wishy-washy folks to call themselves “atheists”. However, I would like to offer a broader definition at the risk of again narrowing the ranks of self-proclaimed atheists.
Atheist: One for whom supernatural entities are unnecessary explanatory concepts.
Of course this puts off the debate into the definition of “supernatural” but I didn’t want to make the definition too long. Nonetheless certainly “supernatural” is helpful because it obviously would include spirits, ghosts, fairies, gods, demons, angels and all those familiar entities. “Supernatural” would also include celestial Boddhisattvas and the Dharmakaya embraced by even the most modern Buddhists, not to mention that demons, ghouls, devas, devis and other formless beings in traditional Buddhism.
Anyway, I thought the notion of “unnecessary explanatory concept” was wonderful. What do you think?
My children and I went ice skating last night. Skating is a brand new thing for all of us. My son was able to skate by himself with only two or three falls per lap. My daughter, however, clung to me with rubbery legs flailing while I swayed like a thin tree supporting a swing blowing in the wind. But all of us were nothing but smiles as we skated to lovely Christmas music.
The skating party was thrown by my kids’ dentist who rents out the huge rink every Christmas for his clients and their families. So there were tons of kids of all ages and temperaments. There were roughnecks speed-skaters, zipping between us beginners, there were teenagers who were chatting instead of skating, there were Dads trying to impress, well, who knows who, and there were tiny kids with Moms patiently pushing them around. It was a carnival.
My daughter and I were just trying to avoid bruises — too slow to feel like we were really skating and too fast for our own good. At one point my daughter was having particular trouble staying up. She was slipping, left go of my hand and grabbed my arm and jacket, throwing us both off-balance. Then quietly and almost effortlessly, a red-headed girl skater came up right next to my daughter. And as she passed us, with the deftness of a Kung Fu master, she lightly lifted my daughter’s arm to perfectly re-establish her balance without my daughter really realizing she’d been helped.
The angelic visitor turned and smiled softly at us as she continued around the rink as if to gently say, “It was nothing. Have a good evening.”
The stranger’s kindness which expected no gratitude made her appear to be an angel. It was rather surreal, actually. I watched her as she skated away, disappearing into the crowd. She had the grace of an angel, leaving no trace of herself.
Using religious symbols in non-religious ways is one way to weaken their doctrinaire and superstitious use. The symbol can then lose its dogma and regains its original rich, mythical beauty. Some may think we should shun all things religious, but a world without myths and symbols is dry. Instead, we should be as creative as our ancestors and embrace symbols to make them our own.