Brent recently commented on the fact that more and more people are identifying themselves primarily by their non-belief. I do think this is a better situation than when atheists are scared to tell people their worldview. However, I don’t think just not believing in god warrants a person any amount of respect, at least from myself. People who are born into an atheist family and don’t want to or care to delve into the rational underpinning of atheism, I think, deserve far less respect than religious people who question their faith and arrive at their beliefs after extensive intellectual exploration.
Being an atheist also does not automatically make someone a good person. Take China for example. I remember a few years back when Dr. Paul Kurtz spoke very fondly of the high amount of atheism in China, that it is an enlightened country that values scientific values and critical thinking. This is unfortunately far from the truth. Although the communist regime decried religion through propaganda, most Chinese people are incredibly superstitious, petty, selfish, greedy, xenophobic, and all-round nasty. I can’t really blame them – entire generations of Chinese were raised venerating the cult of the communist regime, and when they realized that it is rotten to the core, all they had left to believe in was money. Morality and ethics be damned, as long as they can live long and prosper.
Even the most educated city Chinese are very superstitious. My cousin living in Shanghai, one of the biggest and richest cities in China, to give a personal example, was exorcised at the request of her mother by a Daoist nun because she wasn’t doing well in school. Buddhist temples in China get so much donation by people seeking better fortune and wealth, that there is a saying: if you want a quick way to get rich, shave your head and become a monk for five years. I’m not even going to go into traditional Chinese medicine and other witchcraft-like beliefs that permeate the entire country and replace Western, evidence-based medicine.
China, I think, is the perfect example of why atheism alone really isn’t enough. What matters should be the intellectual path one takes to get to being an atheist, and what happens after. What is important for me above all is whether or not you’re a good person who tries to make the world a better place. This is why atheists need to rise above mere non-belief, and where the ethical philosophies of secular humanism is sorely needed.
On a side note, I will be flying to China in a couple of hours for a 3-week vacation and family visits, and will surely discover many new social problems to complain about after I get back :P