Though I have not been a Christian since before I graduated from high school, and have consciously thought of myself as a skeptic for at least the past decade, I have never really grappled directly with the question of whether my skepticism amounts to atheism.
I have usually been content casually to think to myself - and occasionally to write in this blog - that atheism strikes me as altogether too dogmatic, and its public proponents too zealous, shrill, and occasionally repellant for it to really be taken all that seriously.
But then, recent work I've done on the consequences of the Darwinian revolution for human self-understanding and moral experience has led me to think that I cannot remain as nicely neutral on, say, the relation between science and religion, as I might have hoped.
Let me put it this way: skepticism calls for suspension of judgment on matters that cannot currently be decided, particularly those that transcend the world of our common experience. Sextus writes of "equipollence", a condition in which arguments for one side and the other of a particular belief are evenly matched in their merits and their flaws, with no way of deciding between them. Then, the skeptic suspends judgment and is at peace, focusing instead on practical affairs in the world of common experience.
Accordingly, I've thought to myself that what I object to in organized religion is dogmatism, not theism per se. I myself am not a theist, but as long as theists do not insist on pushing their views unduly in the public forum, I have hoped, we can all get along just fine.
But can I be so sure of that? Could atheists be correct that there is something so terribly implausible and wrong-headed about theism that equipollence is broken and the suspension of judgment itself suspended? Is it possible that, even while continuing to suspend judgment about what's really going on in the world, back there, behind the curtain, I can at least say: "Whatever it is, it's not the intelligent creator-God of the theists"?
I think it is at least possible, in which case my skepticism does amount in principle to atheism - though in truth it has long amounted to atheism in practice.
So, I'm going to devote some of my time and energy this summer - starting now, as my spring semester has just ended - sampling the recent spate of "new atheist" books. Right now I'm working through what may turn out to be the best of them, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I'll take in Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, and others, take a tour through Jacoby's scholarship on the subject, and consider some of the less hysterical replies, including Hedges' recent book, I Don't Believe in Atheists.
Since much of the reading I do outside of my research takes place while riding public transit, I'll be interested to see what happens if anyone notices me reading The God Delusion or God is Not Great on the bus . . .
Wish me luck.