Malaysian Atheist

An avowed atheist living in Malaysia.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Public Perception

In this country (and I suspect in many parts of the world as well), when you tell a complete stranger you're an atheist, you will likely evoke a certain response from the other person. He/she will be thinking, "This guy is an unrepentent sinner." He/she might think, "This guy is spiritually lost. He has no directions in life, he has no morals. I should set a good example and try to talk to him about my religion." So, without you having to utter another word, the other person's impression of you is already formed because of the word 'atheist'.

Unfortunately for us atheists, the very word 'atheist' carries a negative connotation. You can't really blame anyone, because people understand that atheists are people who do not believe in God. People who believe in God, believe that they are on the side of all that is good. And so, those who oppose their belief in God must also stand for all that is evil! After all, all those crooks, murderers and rapists in prison are also faithless people who have commited terrible crimes. People who call themselves atheists are therefore also morally corrupted individuals.

Although this is how many people think subconsciously, it is most unfair and incorrect. Perhaps instead of the term 'atheist', we should come up with a more politically correct term because there is a distinction between us atheists and the godless criminals in prison. The difference is that we have arrived at our disbelief after thorough consideration of various religious ideas and careful application of rational thought on the evidence for and against religion. It is not because we are ignorant of what religion preaches. In fact, I'd say that we know more about religious doctrines than most religious people. It is just that we've rejected blind faith, in favour of rational and independent thinking. Also, we have carefully analysed the implications of accepting religious ideas and vehemently rejected them in favour of the alternate philosophy of substantiated ideas namely science. Maybe we should call ourselves 'science-tists', although that might severely limit our identification to only those who are well-versed in scientific thinking.

So, while it's true that many religious and non-religious people out there are ignorant about their beliefs, true atheists are not. Most people know vaguely what they believe in, but not atheists. True atheists know precisely what they subscribe to and what they absolutely do not.

On the issue of morality, I believe human morality does not depend solely on one's religious belief. After all, you will find good and bad people regardless of their religious beliefs. In fact, I think it is much more than that. I think it is more like a non-cooperative game (think A Beautiful Mind) where there is more incentive for us to be good than to be evil. In the book Freakonomics, Steven Levitt wrote about the bagel experiment where roughly 90% of office workers choose to be honest and pay for their bagels eventhough they might get away without paying. It would be ridiculous to suggest that people who paid are all religous people while those who did not pay are atheists. So I think a person's moral conviction is present regardless of his/her religious beliefs or disbeliefs.

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