Recently I had an email conversation with a reader about religion, in which I explained why my view of the world, of morality, of spirituality, doesn't require the idea of gods. As it happens, over on Pharyngula, there has begun a series of postings from readers about why they are atheists. I just read one that expresses a lot of what I said (and some things I'd not say) more eloquently than I did. Here's the essence:
The world as explained by science is so beautiful it makes me weep. Literally. When I think about these tiny jiggling particles that constitute everything, when I gaze into the sky and see the vastness of the Cosmos, when I sit in my chair, smoke a pipe and consider life on Earth and try to wrap my head around the unimaginably complex processes that allowed me to form as a human being and now ponder life itself, when I try to imagine and appreciate how much we have accomplished, when I see the shrouded realm of what we do not yet know my eyes brim with tears of emotion, my heart leaps with expectation and wonder. ... It is marvellous. It is profound.
There are also moral reasons for my disbelief. I have a firm conviction that only the morality that emerges from a deep intrinsic need to do good is worthwhile. The opposed, religious morality of punishment and reward I find unwholesome, dishonest and infantile. I do not consider people who behave acceptably because they fear eternal punishment moral...
(The paragraph I deleted above is not one I'd have written. And I don't smoke a pipe.)
As I've thought about it, it seems that atheism ought to be the default assumption, for anyone. Certain things ought to go without saying. One should not have to describe oneself, for example, as a mathist. Or a gravitist. (Yes, I realize the analogy is sort of a semantic contradiction, but you get the picture.) I believe the grass grows; I believe in chlorophyll. I (sort of) understand radioactive decay, and I understand (to a degree) its relation to measuring the age of the earth. I know (mostly) why planes fly and I don't need to claim an angel holds them up; I don't think the earth rides on the back of a turtle, and it seems reasonable that anyone would assume that about me. Nor does the fact that I don't know everything lead me to fill in the blanks with imaginary answers. I can wait. Belief in the demonstrable ought to be the default baseline for anyone, and it shouldn't need a particular label.
Okay, maybe "realist."
It's when you begin to come up with magical explanations (ones, I must point out, that other believers in other magic will decry ferociously and consider false magic, capital blasphemy, compared to their version of it, with no sense of irony whatever), that it seems labels should be applied. I think of those judges who sentence people to wearing a sign after they stole something. People who didn't steal anything don't need a sign saying so. Not believing in gods oughtn't need particularizing any more than breathing does. I do breathe; I admit it. But it'd be strange to identify me as a breather, wouldn't it?