Atheist biologist Jerry Coyne asked his blog readers today to coin one word that could be used for atheists who are accomodating—rather than combative—in their attitudes toward religion. Here was my response:
Since you’re obviously talking about people like me, maybe it would be nice to let people like me name ourselves. I wouldn’t mind, for example, being called an empatheist. It blends the words “empathy” and “atheist” perfectly and is not inherently derogatory or dismissive.
An empatheist is an atheist or agnostic who, in disputes, tries to walk in the shoes of others and tries to stay open and empathetic to points of view different from his or her own (and not treat the world in Manichean terms). An empatheist is a person, in short, who has absorbed liberalism and atheism in a way that makes him or her in favor of social pluralism. He or she doesn’t want a world without religion, but a world that speaks from diverse points of view.
An empatheist believes that a society that speaks many religious languages is better than one that speaks only one language (such as monotheism or monoatheism).
Camus was an empatheist. He famously told a group of Christians that he thought it was important for Christians to stay Christians and speak from their tradition, even as he spoke from the vantage of his lack of faith. He wanted dialogue and alliance with reasonable religionists, not combat. Barack Obama is almost certainly some sort of empatheist. The Berkeley philosopher, Richard Rorty, was an atheist, and I don’t believe he would have been offended to be called an empatheist.
Empatheism is a way of being in the world that blends atheism and pragmatic liberalism. It’s vaguely secular, but doesn’t want to rhetorically go after the juggler of moderate or liberal religionists. An empatheist tries to see what’s good in religion, not just what’s bad. An empatheist recognizes that there is an ontological mystery that empiricism cannot quite reach, and that religion, in its diversity, attempts to approach. The gestures of religion the empatheist does not scorn, but understands.