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May 07, 2007

The Atheists Come Marching On and On...

Matt and Kevin are musing over what accounts for the recent spate of books aggressively defending atheism and attacking religion. "It seems especially odd to me." writes Matt, "because it's so contrary to the spirit of non-theism to go around writing books like this. The whole strength of the non-theistic intellectual enterprise over the years has simply been to go about our business without talking about God."

You're seeing, I think, a few forces at work here. One is that the rise of the Christian Right, and particularly the post-2004 narrative that they and their worldview reelected Bush, has merged religion and politics, and it would be contrary to the spirit of politics not to go around forcefully advocating for your views. The conflation created a new situation in which atheists actually had to argue down the Christian Right, since their beliefs were now morphing into policy positions.

Another is the nascent confidence among atheists that they're maturating into a real movement with a certain amount of sway, safety, and -- for lack of a better term -- evangelical potential. I don't think, as Matt does, that atheism is traditionally taken up by those who ignore the question of God. Those folks are generally agnostics. Atheists, in my experience, tend to dislike religion with a particular intensity, blaming it -- rightly or wrongly -- for all manner of historical atrocities, modern ills, and intellectual crimes. For some time, it wasn't safe, at least occupationally, to detail those complaints publicly. As a market has emerged for such opinions, however, and the Christian Right has courted enough controversy that their beliefs have become fair game, you're seeing the public expression of this form of atheism, which is as much an anti-theism as anything else.

May 7, 2007 in Religion | Permalink

Comments

please, you really do a disservice to clarity in this area by confusing the atheist/agnostic divide with some sort of scalar of vehemence or active interest.

Atheist do not believe that there are any gods.

Agnostics feel some uncertainty about the question.

That is all.

I can be an atheist and dislike religion, or like religion, or not give a damn about it. That's just an entirely different issue.

And agnostics can like religion or dislike it or not give a damn about it.

I mean--lots of agnostics go to church on sunday. But then, lots of atheists do, too.

And lots of agnostics feel deeply ambivalent about whether there are any gods or not, but feel great confidence that whatever the hell is going on up there, Falwell and Pat Roberts and Osama Bin Laden are all despicable dangerous scum.

This stuff is hard enough to discuss without your talking as though "agnostic" is equivalent to "reasonable, moderate, chin-stroking centrist" and "atheist" is the same as "church-burning, priest-lynching madman." The two axes are just completely orthogonal to each other.

Posted by: thag | May 7, 2007 12:07:23 PM

"As a market has emerged for such opinions, however, and the Christian Right has courted enough controversy that their beliefs have become fair game, you're seeing the public expression of this form of atheism, which is as much an anti-theism as anything else."

Yes, and the fact that many/most of the Christian Right policy decisions, those which have been put into play by the current Sadministration and in a number of states, have been abject failures also helps open the door to the public political world for atheists and not-quite-atheists.

Posted by: bubba | May 7, 2007 12:09:43 PM

Atheist do not believe that there are any gods.
Agnostics feel some uncertainty about the question.

This is itself a complete falsehood. Agnosticism is based around the idea (or fact, I suppose an agnostic would say) that God is unknowable, and is entirely separate from the issue of God's existence or non-existence.

I think the final sentence of the original post sums the situation up. Two distinct camps have emerged under the mantle of "atheism," one which simply takes as its foundation the idea that there is no theistic deity, and a second which thinks it has proven that there is no God and that is must proselytize on that point. I really like the term "antitheist" for that second group, leaving the original term for the original group.

Posted by: Midwest Product | May 7, 2007 12:30:14 PM

"Agnosticism is based around the idea (or fact, I suppose an agnostic would say) that God is unknowable"

uh, I think you've got agnosticism confused with negative theology.

Posted by: thag | May 7, 2007 12:35:28 PM

and a second which thinks it has proven that there is no God

I don't think there are many who claim to have "proven" that God doesn't exist. If so, who? Most of the so-called militants simply think that the evidence for God is so skimpy that you shouldn't believe in him.

Posted by: Gorgle Erf | May 7, 2007 12:37:05 PM

Saying agnostics have "some uncertainty" seems way too weak. Heck, I wouldn't be surprised if most priests would qualify as agnostic by this definition (although they might not admit to their uncertainty).

Posted by: Gorgle Erf | May 7, 2007 12:41:35 PM

Good post!

I can buy the idea that the religionists/theists are being attacked for for all manner of historical atrocities, modern ills, and intellectual crimes. There surely is more than some of that at work.

But there is also a generous helping of late-to-the-game counter-attack for decades of being attacked as 'godless liberals' by the religious right as a way of marginalization. The religious right has enabled the (non)religious left both by getting into politics and by over-struting on the stage and revealing their inconsistencies, bone-headedness, and general hypocrisy.

I don't think the distinction between atheism and agnosticism (or negative theology, for that matter) is important since use of these terms is very much more a personal attitude thing than a philosophically well-considered position for most people. Both words are socially whispered, and there is some 'coming out of the closet' response in what's happening. a

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | May 7, 2007 12:54:12 PM

""It seems especially odd to me." writes Matt, "because it's so contrary to the spirit of non-theism to go around writing books like this. The whole strength of the non-theistic intellectual enterprise over the years has simply been to go about our business without talking about God.""

This is *so* Matt at his very worst. The strength of atheism, anti-theism, whatever you wish to call is that it requires proof. There is no proof, no evidence of a god. So those advocating a god are doing so out of belief, something far different from actual intellectual knowledge. This is a bit different than ignoring god.

As well, I agree with Jim and others that account for, if it is true, a more militant atheism. The brand of christianity that has made itself a popular, powerful industry in this country has really put people, not just atheists or agnostics, but anyone who doesn't believe swaggert talks to god or robertson hears messages about the stock market from jesus to, yes, george bush saying his policy is backed by god, is now in a different position. Those beliefs are now part of public policy. At least one of bush's generals thinks we're involved in a holy war for the fate of the christian world. I cannot imagine a better time for those who do not think gods rule us to stand up and question these acts.

In a way, I'm just repeating what Jim though not as well.

Suffice to say, I'm somewhat disgusted with Matt and, to a lesser extent, Drum (I expect this kind of foolishness from him). It's borderline concern trolling and there's really no reason for it. The idea that religion is under some kind of assault, by anyone, when religionists hold sway over much of the planet, is not much different from spoiled, white legacy brats bitching and moaning about AA in colleges and holding "bake sales" to make their self-serving, non-sensical points.

Posted by: ice weasel | May 7, 2007 1:07:39 PM

"Atheists, in my experience, tend to dislike religion with a particular intensity, blaming it -- rightly or wrongly -- for all manner of historical atrocities, modern ills, and intellectual crimes."

Well, la-ti-friggin da! I would have thought that once you had typed the qualifying phrase "in my experience" you might have been honest enough to just delete the rest of the sentence. After all, how many atheists do you hang with, and how representative are they of atheism writ large?

Couldn't you just as confidently aver that "Christians, in [your] experience, tend to dislike atheists with a particular intensity, blaming them -- rightly or wrongly -- for all manner of historical atrocities, modern ills, and intellectual crimes."

All of which is apropos of nothing when discussing whether or not there are any intellectually honest, rational reasons to believe that a deity exists. Atheists do not deny the concept of "God" because they perceive that bad things are done in "His" name, but because they see no logical reasons for a belief in "His" existence.

Posted by: zeke | May 7, 2007 1:08:01 PM

Well, whatever you believe, you better get busy branding it and defining it and casting out the nonbelievers. Otherwise you won't make any money or have any power, and in the end that's what matters most.

Posted by: twig | May 7, 2007 1:22:40 PM

Gah. No, not "evangelizing". Proselytizing. "Evangelizing" is specifically spreading the word of the Gospels. It is entirely inappropriate to non-Christians, let alone atheists.

Not even addressing the context, I'm just tired of people who don't know what "evangelize" means.

Posted by: Nick | May 7, 2007 1:40:41 PM

I see a pretty close analogy with the way the Bush administration's multiple disasters have fed into a renewed public interest in a constructively engaged federal government, with growing support for policies that would help those in need and a willingness to pay for them. The liberal criticism of anti-governmental conservatism was always "if you do that enough, something awful might happen"; now it's "something awful has happened, and since you don't want it again, we're going to have to start fixing it". The various criticisms of theocratic politics were in the same situation. Now that we get to see the multi-year consequences of letting religious agendas drive policy on many fronts, warnings about the underlying drive to make them have fresh sharp teeth, and this leads people to a fresh willingness to think about the whole matter of religious belief and practice.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | May 7, 2007 2:07:11 PM

Athiesm is the fastest growing, uh, "belief system" in the United States, for all the reasons that people have already mentioned.

The reality is that traditional religion *is* under assault in the West, and has been for some time. Christian fundamentalism here in the states can be viewed as a direct response to an increasingly secular society, not the other way around. An "anti-theist" movement can probably only get so far, but I think atheism/agnoticism will only continue to grow. We are in a defining historical moment.

P.S. I would venture to say that Ezra probably hangs out with quite a lot of atheists. Young liberal Washington bloggers ftw.

Posted by: Korha | May 7, 2007 2:09:28 PM

The idea that religion is under some kind of assault, by anyone, when religionists hold sway over much of the planet, is not much different from spoiled, white legacy brats bitching and moaning about AA in colleges and holding "bake sales" to make their self-serving, non-sensical points.

There is a small but highly vocal number of anti-theists who are engaged in a full-frontal assault upon all religion per se. I can't see that they've accomplished much, however, other than being annoying as hell.

Re definitions -- a person for whom the question of whether there is or is not a god has become utterly irrelevant to anything, including religion, is a non-theist. Many sects of Buddhism are non-theistic. An atheist, IMO, is someone who both defines God and is certain no such critter exists. That would make a theist someone who both defines God and is certain that such a critter *does* exist.

If an agnostic is someone who says God cannot be known, then a whole lot of deeply religious people throughout the ages have been agnostics. Mystical traditions, East and West, are based on the understanding that the Great Holy Undefinable Whatever cannot be understood by conceptual thought and must be perceived by means other than ordinary cognition. For mystics, the atheists' argument that God can't be "proved" pretty much misses the entire point of religion. As the philosophical Taoists might say, anything that can be explained in a PowerPoint presentation is not the Tao.

Posted by: maha | May 7, 2007 2:13:58 PM

Whew... this is a situation where word etymology can run rampant, especially given terms that can lead some people to have strong emotional reactions.

Evangelize... to spread the word of the gospels, as mentioned above, however, I will point out that since the word "gospel" has been co-opted for other purposes (i.e., "On the Origin of Species" is considered to be the gospel of evolution"...), I don't see why one couldn't take some poetic license and co-opt "evangelize" as well.

Agnostic... was coined as by T. H. Huxley by adding the "a-" postfix ("not") to the Greek word "gnostic" (to be known). The fundamental concept is that such things cannot and will never be known. However, there are people who have co-opted the term as a way of indicating one who is doubtful or noncommital about something, or a similar adjective. Due to the original meaning of the term as coined to apply to "higher, esoteric knowledge of spiritual things" (which is how gnosis was described by early Christian writers and from which the word gnostic was derived), the two definitions frequently get conflated so that a self-proclaimed agnostic might either firmly believe that one can never know, or might simply not know what to believe yet. It depends on who you talk to.

Atheists believe that there is no god or god or goddesses or any such supreme being. That's pretty much the only description of the word that currently exists.

There is another related word, deist, which used to be the term in opposition to atheist rather than theist. Deists believe that there is a supreme being, but not in supernatural revelation. In other words, they assert the existence of a god on the basis of reason and nature, without recourse to something such as the Bible or other revelation to mankind.

For the record, I fit into none of these categories, though I am dating two atheists, live in the Bible Belt, have a close sister who considers herself more of a Deist than anything, and have a number of good friends who are agnostics in the original sense of the word. I don't categorize myself if I can avoid it, but I just tell people that I tend to be heavily influenced by Zen Buddhism. Anyways, I think that the terms tend to take on different meanings with different people, so nobody is using the terms incorrectly, even though they're describing different concepts. The English language is hardly a fixed construct with absolute meanings applied to every word (if you think that's true, go read some Chaucer in the original fashion that he wrote in).

My contribution to the discussion actually related to the post-- I would agree that the development of more high-profile atheistic defenders (let's call them advocates of the position diametrically opposed to the traditionalist Christian view) is certainly partly a product of the elevated position that Christian advocates take in the public arena... it's no longer some side arena where philosophers argue through various publications about the existence of God, now it's Centre Court, thus the profiles of everyone is elevated. So it isn't that the tensions are new, they're just appearing in public view more now than in the past.

I must disagree with Ezra about atheists disliking religion... as I said, I'm dating two atheists, and "atheist" is one term ("evangelical Christian" is another one!) that I never apply to myself, but they don't demand that I do so, and they both are very respectful of other people having their own beliefs. One of them is even more fascinated by religion because of her atheism... pure intellectual curiosity about how and why people would believe certain things. The other one likes to say, "I'm an atheist, not an ass." One must be careful to differentate between the "advocates" (who make it a lifelong goal to fight like heck for one position) and the "mainstream".

Posted by: Scott | May 7, 2007 2:27:26 PM

Another thing.. I agree with what maha says, though as I pointed out in my last post, there is also a difference between theists and deists with respect to whether or not they believe in supernatural revelation.

I must also say that while I have absolutely no problem with people believing whatever they want, I do get annoyed by militant atheists just as much as I get annoyed by militant Christian fundamentalists. There just happen to be more of the latter around here to get annoyed at.

Posted by: Scott | May 7, 2007 2:31:16 PM

Evangelize... to spread the word of the gospels, as mentioned above, however, I will point out that since the word "gospel" has been co-opted for other purposes (i.e., "On the Origin of Species" is considered to be the gospel of evolution"...), I don't see why one couldn't take some poetic license and co-opt "evangelize" as well.

Because the word "proselytize" exists, and doesn't draw a false equivalence between what Dawkins does and what Pat Robertson does. Also, because "evangelical" refers to angels, right there in the word. Atheists simply can't be "evangelical".

For that matter, who, aside from a creationist trying to make a poor rhetorical point, would ever refer to Origin as a "gospel"? Adopting the rhetoric of the religious right is just a bad idea.

Posted by: Nick | May 7, 2007 2:38:28 PM

The left-blogosphere this past week:

"Chait wrote a horrible article about blogs that only judge what we say by it's political goals and usefulness. He completely ignored how right we were!!!"

"Now let's get to discussing the atheist movement with no reference to it's truthfulness or validity".

Posted by: Tony V | May 7, 2007 2:41:57 PM

Gospel simply means good news. Evangel - euangellion in Greek - simply means good news. Evangelist simply means one who spreads good news.

So if you think that the antioxidant properties of dark chocolate is good news and you tell your friends about it, then you are an evangelist.

Anyway, it's not like anyone advocated putting punctuation marks outside quotes.

Posted by: Stephen | May 7, 2007 2:56:11 PM

Thag, what you say is true enough, but the fact remains that atheists are more likely to be strident critics of religion and religious belief than agnostics are (desite zeke's non-denial denial, and Scott's two examples of atheists who aren't hostile to religion, which is how I would classify myself as well).

Scott has made some of the following linguistic points, but I'll say them anyway.

Midwest, you're relying on the original philosophical meaning of "agnostic," which has been replaced in the mainstream, and even much philosophy, by the meaning thag gives. "Antitheist" seems a useful term.

Maha, "atheism" doesn't imply any degree of certainty. Atheists believe there is no God, but they may not be certain. Agnostics, in the most common usage, don't either assert or deny there's a God. This isn't the same as saying there is a God who is (basically) unknowable in his nature, which is negative theology.

Gorgle, I've run into plenty of atheists who believe there are proofs that the Christian God doesn't exist, such as the problem of evil.

Weasel, I'm not sure where you really disagree with Matt. Matt believes that, once we determine that there's no good evidence for God (let's assume), then the proper response is to go on without bothering with God. You seem to criticize the idea that there is even an increased assault on religion, this after you seem to have acknowledged there is one. I don't get it.

It's borderline concern trolling and there's really no reason for it.

Isn't "trolling" a wonderfully flexible word? Whatever we don't like is trolling. Now Matt's trolling his own blog.

Nick, "evangelize" now has a broader meaning than its original one. "Evangelize" doesn't refer to angels. Both "evangelize" and "angel" refer to messengers.

"Now let's get to discussing the atheist movement with no reference to it's truthfulness or validity"

The implicit and sometimes explicit criticism is that militant anti-theism isn't a valid position. It typically involves some false views about religion and belief.

Posted by: Sanpete | May 7, 2007 2:58:12 PM

Atheists believe that there is no god or god or goddesses or any such supreme being. That's pretty much the only description of the word that currently exists.

Right. The irony is that atheists have to have at least a hazy definition of "god" in order to not believe in one. And therein is the catch. One of the things about Dawkins, Harris et al. that drives even liberal theologians up a wall is that lurking about in their writing is a damn simplistic and primitive definition of "god" that has no resemblance whatsoever to the "god" of many religious traditions.

In other words, the God Richard Dawkins doesn't believe in is likewise not believed in by some theists.

Madeleine Bunting has an post at Comment is Free today that argues the "new atheists" like Dawkins loathe religion too much to be able to understand it, and because they don't understand it they cannot plausibly challenge it.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2074076,00.html

Posted by: maha | May 7, 2007 3:22:00 PM

Nick, "evangelize" now has a broader meaning than its original one.

It's one thing to use a word broadly in another context, but the "evangel-" construction has a very specific religious meaning. If nothing else, further contribution to the misunderstanding of what "evangelical" means is a bad idea.

"Evangelize" doesn't refer to angels. Both "evangelize" and "angel" refer to messengers.

Yes, I'm aware of the origin of the word "angel". It's the Greek word for messenger, adopted for the messengers God sent to give his evangelion to the writers of the Bible.

The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον does indeed just mean "good news". The English word "evangelism" does not.

Posted by: Nick | May 7, 2007 3:22:34 PM

euangellion in Greek - simply means good news.

Man, and if that doesn't make the anime even more f-ed up. Awesome.

... and Scott, much as I enjoy your 'live and let live' position on religion and atheism, it simply won't do. What good is there in having a movement if it doesn't aggrivate or annoy a large segment of society? Why bother having an opinion if you can't be self-righteous about it? Best abandon all good manners immediately or you'll never get famous. (/megasarcasm)

Posted by: twig | May 7, 2007 3:23:35 PM

I think it's high time that agnostics, like myself, come out of the closet and take up cudgels against atheism. Atheism is not based on reason or empirical evidence, but is an emotional belief that there is no intelligent source of the universe. (Of course, atheists may be correct, despite their lack of reason; but, then again, theists may be correct.)

Do I hear someone say "Russell's Teapot"? Russell (writing in the pre-Sputnik era before October 1957), was making the point that it was irrational to believe that there was a teapot orbiting the Sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. The fact that the existence of the teapot could not be disproved was no justification for believing in it. But more than that, I think Russell was pretty clearly indicating that the rational position was to disbelieve in the teapot (i.e., to believe positively that the teapot did not exist) – to be an “ateapotist”. And this seems sensible enough.

In 1952, pre-Sputnik, a belief in the orbiting teapot would have contradicted everything known about the laws of physics, the way teapots are formed, the capabilities of rockets, etc. In other words, there were good reasons, based on empirical evidence, for disbelieving in the teapot. Because of this, the burden of proof lay with anyone who claimed such an artifact existed. Similarly, we have reasons to believe that people cannot fly around on broomsticks; we have reasons to believe that it was Mummy who painted the Easter eggs and Daddy who hid them in the garden – not the Easter Bunny. The existence of invisible dragons in the garage or fairies at the bottom of the garden would violate the laws of nature as we understand them, and there are no natural phenomena whose existence requires dragons or fairies as an explanation. The burden of proof, then, rests with those who claim such things exist.

Even today, post-Sputnik, there are reasons to disbelieve in the orbiting teapot, though not as many as there used to be. But if we were to read on the TASS website that a Russian astronaut had taken the ashes of his beloved grandmother, sealed in her favourite teapot, into space and then, while on a spacewalk, launched the teapot into solar orbit, and if this story were corroborated by other normally reliable sources, the burden of proof would be dramatically shifted. It would now be irrational to disbelieve in the orbiting teapot.

However, the ultimate nature and origin of the universe is both a scientific and philosophical mystery. In the absence of some understanding of why a universe exists (i.e., the conditions that precede or are external to the Big Bang, space, time, matter, and the laws of nature) we have no grounds for saying that one sort of ultimate explanation is any more likely to be true than another. There is no way we can get outside the universe to examine the conditions of its existence. (Even scientific evidence that our universe is eternal would not rule out an Intelligent Designer, since a hypothesized Designer would have created all the parameters of our eternal universe, including time itself.) Dawkins and company assume that the hypothesis of a Designer is less probable than the hypothesis of no Designer – that is, they assume that we have some reason to believe that God does not exist. But surely there are no grounds for this assumption that atheism is the default rational position. (There may be evidence -- e.g., the undeserved suffering of animals and small children – that the benevolent Christian God does not exist, but that's another matter.)

I must conclude, along with T. H. Huxley – Darwin’s original bulldog – that agnosticism is the only rational position. Atheism, it seems, is just another irrational leap of faith, and Richard Dawkins and his ilk are just more evangelists.

Posted by: mijnheer | May 7, 2007 3:28:33 PM

sanpete,

I'm not denying that there are atheists who might be termed "anti-theists." In fact, I would count myself among their number. But my anti-theism is based on my opposition to religion, not religionists. I don't believe that Christians, Muslims or Jews are unfit to hold public office, and I certainly don't believe that they should be doomed to an eternity of fire and brimstone for holding their beliefs, however foolish.

The same cannot be said for many, perhaps most Christians in this country. These "anti-atheists" would consign me to second class status in this world, and eternal damnation in what they believe to be the next world.

So when Matt writes "The whole strength of the non-theistic intellectual enterprise over the years has simply been to go about our business without talking about God," I must take exception. In the current political/religious environment, to remain silent and "go about our business" is not strength, but instead tantamount to acquiescence in our own marginalization by society. Only by becoming visible and arguing forcefully for our point of view will we ever succeed in changing the benighted views of our religious fellow citizens.

Posted by: zeke | May 7, 2007 3:28:59 PM

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